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STEM Education 8: Help Create Creativity

Creativity diminishes with age, in part because we dig ourselves into ruts that limit our field of view.

If we have identified STEM nerds and properly nurtured them in the fundamentals, then introduced to what is both fun and meaningful in the STEM world, we need to inspire them to develop their creativity. We must reach them when they are young because, as a rule, creativity diminishes with age. Youth pursue and sometimes master the seemingly impossible because they don’t know any better.

One astonishing example of creativity in a STEM field is seventeenth century genius Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662). He co-discovered probability, proved pressure changes with elevation, pioneered hydraulics, popularized what is now known as Pascal’s triangle of binomial coefficients, and invented one of the first mechanical computers. The metric unit of pressure, the pascal, is named after him. He achieved all this before the age of 31, when he had a life-changing experience of Jesus Christ. Afterward, he devoted much of his time to Christian apologetics, including the writing of his classic Pensées1, which were published after his death.

Likewise, Albert Einstein was 26 in 1905 when he published four papers (his annus mirabilis or miracle year). In these papers, he

  • showed that Brownian motion was the result of molecules moving
  • proposed the photoelectric effect
  • formulated the Special Theory of Relativity, and
  • derived the most famous equation in physics: E = mc2. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for modeling the photoelectric effect.

Why was Einstein so productive? For one thing, he was not bound by past assumptions. Einstein wasn’t tied to the separate dogmatic laws of conservation of mass and conservation of energy when he derived his formula, E = mc2 Indeed, energy, E was related to mass, m. He also didn’t constrain himself by assuming that light needed “luminiferous aether” to travel. He assumed, rather, that the speed of light was a constant, independent of one’s frame of reference. Einstein knew his basics but did not restrict himself to prevailing but unproven dogma. When young creators cast aside the shackles of dogma, they can do incredible things.

Gregory Chaitin began to formulate Chaitin’s number, possibly the most fascinating number ever identified, when he was in high school. Stephen Jobs, founder of Apple, was first removed from leadership from his corporation when he was only 30. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook and became the richest twentysomething in history. Evan Spiegel created Snapchat in his early twenties. The fact that many such breakthroughs in mathematics and technology have come from the young is captured by the criteria for the highest award in mathematics. There is no Nobel Prize in math but the Fields Medal, awarded every fourth year, is considered equivalent and the recipient must be under 40.

Creativity is an effective motivator for learning the basics. For example, I found repetitive exercises in music boring. Only when I began writing songs did I realize that I needed to know the fundamentals. Motivated by my nerdiness, I discovered the simple math of harmonics on guitar strings and developed the mathematics necessary to show, among other things, why the frets on the guitar are placed where they are. I derived the ratio of two adjacent frequencies on a piano as the 12th root of two, as was the ratio of adjacent fret distances to the guitar’s bridge. I was in high school at the time and won a handful of blue ribbons at science fairs, and became an Honorary Inductee to Junior Membership in the Ohio Academy of Science.2 My high school research was not just forgotten afterward. I included it in a section of my book, The Handbook of Fourier Analysis and Its Applications.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I saw the musical implications of the 12th root of two mentioned again, in a book on computer music. My analysis was hardly an Einsteinian annus mirabilis, of course. The tempered scale I had derived was developed 300 years earlier and celebrated by Bach in his composition, The Well-Tempered Clavier. In any event, Nobel Prize-worthiness is not a criterion for the tingling exhilaration of creativity I experienced.

Creativity diminishes with age, in part because we dig ourselves into ruts that limit our field of view. We are numbed—and dumbed—by familiarity. Here is an anecdote that I use to illustrate this calcification. If you are a seasoned nerd, you probably won’t solve it. Contra-nerds solve it more easily because they have not dug the rut STEM nerds have.

Little Yuri from Russia knew next to nothing about America and had never read or heard anything about American history. While riding with his parents on a July 4, he heard the announcer on the car radio say,

“Today is July 4. Americans celebrate July 4 as a holiday because on this day in 1776 they declared their independence from the British. Here is an amazing and remarkable fact about America. The first five presidents of the United States were Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Of these five, in an amazing coincidence, three died on July 4.”

With just this information, Little Yuri immediately knew the identity of one of the three who died on July 4. He didn’t know with the probability of 3/5, but with certainty.

Remarkably, few nerds with bachelor’s degrees and beyond, including my PhD-educated colleagues, can replicate little Yuri’s reasoning. Yet when I shared this story with a contra-nerd missionary in Japan, the correct answer came immediately. I won’t give the answer here. If you’re having a problem with the solution, ask someone who is not a nerd. There are no tricks. Once the answer is explained, it is obvious.3

An aging STEM nerd digs more and deeper ruts and creative thinking becomes more and more difficult. For this reason, I remain tolerant of graduate students with new and seemingly wacky ideas. I try to listen intently until I can prove to them that they are wrong because of this or that fundamental principle. At times I see glimmers of genius as I force myself to peer over the tops of my ruts into their ideas. Students should respect the accumulated wisdom of their professors. But through this respect students need to discern whether the advice they are given is the wisdom that comes with experience or the babbling of an old fool.

When I became a Christian, I wanted to tell the whole world about the joy I had found. I’m similarly motivated about my profession. There is no more rewarding occupation under the sun than working in a field in which one is gifted. Sharing this sense of fulfilment with young nerds and educating them in their fields’ history and career opportunities should be a major goal of any STEM program.

1 The Pensées consisted of “a notebook in which he drafted or recorded ideas for a planned defence of Christianity” whose publication in 1670 earned him an enduring place in French literature. Here are some quotations in English.

2 Here’s the certificate.

3 I have a confession. I was not able to solve Yuri’s problem and needed to be told the answer. Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743–July 4, 1826) is the most famous of those who died on July 4. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, which was formally adopted on July 4, 1776, now celebrated annually as a national holiday. The other two were John Adams and James Monroe.

The previous articles in this series:

STEM EDUCATION 1. STEM Education 1. Pursuing Nerd Quality Over Nerd Quantity

STEM EDUCATION 2. Stem Education 2. Not Everyone is Lucky Enough to Be A Nerd

STEM EDUCATION 3. Killing People and Breaking Things Modern history suggests that military superiority driven by technology can be a key factor in deterring aggression and preventing mass fatalities

STEM Education 4. Do STEM Nerds Need to Learn Latin? Well-roundedness is appropriate in applied STEM curricula to the extent that it rounds out the skills necessary for success as a STEM professional.

Stem Education 5: What difference do family and privilege make to success? Robert J. Marks: A strong family helps a STEM nerd succeed. However, a “strong family” is not necessarily a family that had an easy ride, as my own story shows.

STEM Education 6: How to Guide a Nerd Robert J. Marks: Students whose high school curricula are flexible can more easily develop and follow their God-given talents

STEM Education 7: Sell the Sizzle Robert J. Marks: The mathematics underlying our world is fascinating and full of surprises

Also by Robert Marks: Autonomous AI in War: Trial by Ordeal The more complicated a system becomes, the more difficult it is to analyze all of its actions.


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Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

STEM Education 8: Help Create Creativity